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OKC community divided over case of rabbi charged with sexual assaults

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The small, close-knit Jewish community in this Bible Belt city was used to seeing Rabbi Richard Marcovitz presiding over weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs.

So they were shocked to see TV images of him with his hands behind his back in handcuffs, arrested for allegedly groping two girls and two young women at a Jewish day school.

The case has divided a Jewish community that numbers less than 3,000 people in a metro area of more than a million, a place where the Baptist religion predominates.

A hearing scheduled for Friday to determine whether a trial is warranted on 11 criminal sex charges was postponed until June 7 because Marcovitz's attorney had a personal emergency.

Some congregants of Emanuel Synagogue have given up on the 65-year-old rabbi, while others hope he will be exonerated and resume his work as a religious leader, said Henryk Orlowski, a real estate agent who has been active in the local Jewish community for 20 years.

``I hate to see the rift in the whole community,'' he said. ``We could have repercussions for years to come and unhappiness among individuals for the way everything was handled.''

The criminal investigation began on Feb. 7, when police were told that Marcovitz had touched a child in an inappropriate way at the Oklahoma City Jewish Community Day School, which is located at the synagogue.

Police Sgt. Willie Edwards said in an affidavit that he spoke to 20 people who backed up the stories of two girls, ages 12 and 9, as well as a 26-year-old teacher and a 17-year-old daycare worker. All four said he touched them on their breasts or bottoms.

Edwards said the people he spoke to either saw the touching or heard the four people complain about it. ``All the victims advised this happened several times over a period of at least a year,'' Edwards said.

Marcovitz was released on $80,000 bond. Within a few days, he was placed on administrative leave from the 200-family Conservative synagogue, where he has worked for six years.

The synagogue, founded in 1904, has continued to hold religious services without the rabbi, who has been holding services of his own in his home.

Marcovitz, known for his booming voice and outgoing manner, has been a local fixture. Every year he helps children light a large menorah outside the synagogue. He has explained Jewish traditions to newspapers and television stations and has expressed views about Israel.

Marcovitz faces five charges of lewd acts with a child under 16, each punishable by up to 20 years in prison; and six counts of sexual battery, which carry 5-year terms.

``I am looking forward to the truth coming out, and if the truth comes out, I think the right thing will happen,'' said Marcovitz's attorney, Billy Bock.

The case has gained notoriety because of his position as a rabbi in a city where many residents do not have a great knowledge of Judaism, Bock said.

``Because he's a rabbi, it's a bigger deal, and in Oklahoma, I don't know that we have a great understanding of what a rabbi is,'' the attorney said.

Oklahoma City's Jewish population is small compared to other major U.S. cities. Few Jews participated in the land run that populated the Oklahoma territory in 1889. The city does not have the Jewish delicatessens, butchers or bakers seen in many other major urban areas.

Rabbi David Packman, who presides at the Reform Temple B'Nai Israel in Oklahoma City, said problems of molestation in the Roman Catholic Church also have drawn additional attention to the case.

``It's the hot issue of the day,'' he said.

Assistant District Attorney Jodie Casey said religion does not affect how she is handling the case.

``In our opinion, it's being handled similar to any other case,'' Casey said. ``Just like in any case, when anyone has authority, that's another piece of the evidence. But that doesn't change the way the case is prosecuted.''

Synagogue President Robert Epstein said he hopes some good will eventually come out of a bad situation.

``I think there are people who feel this has created harm and I think at the same time, everyone is trying to reach out to create more harmony,'' he said.
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